No longer Orioles' chief catcher, Gil is competing for backup role

Battle with Osik for spot will go down to the wire

March 29, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Geronimo Gil has a proud and stoic demeanor that befits his nickname in the Orioles' clubhouse. His teammates call him Chief.

So, these days, it almost seems to pain Gil to talk about his precarious situation on the roster. After a humbling 2003 season and a humbling offseason during which the Orioles handed his position to a guy who smacked 43 home runs last year, Gil is in a dogfight with Keith Osik for the backup catcher's role.

Manager Lee Mazzilli repeatedly has called it a tough decision that will go down to the wire this week, even though Gil is batting .429 and Osik is at .056.

For a team that just signed free-agent catcher Javy Lopez to a three-year, $22.5 million contract, this may seem like an unimportant subplot in spring training. But that's not the way the Orioles are viewing it.

"By no means should [Gil and Osik] concede the fact they're not going to play very much," said Rick Dempsey, the first base coach and catching specialist. "They're thinking about using Javy as the DH as much as possible, so the backup guy's going to play a lot."

In 2002, Gil came to spring training as a rookie and claimed the starting catcher job from incumbent Brook Fordyce. But Gil fell from favor last season, when the Orioles gradually stripped him of the starting role and sent him to Triple-A Ottawa for six weeks.

This winter, the Orioles made catching one of their top priorities. They declined a $4 million option on Fordyce's contract and signed Lopez, who had a career year last season with the Atlanta Braves.

"I feel all right because Javy Lopez is a good catcher and a good man," Gil said. "We've got a good team, with Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro, and I want to stay on the team this year. I'm working hard every day."

It said something about the way the Orioles view Gil the way they stockpiled catchers to compete for the backup role.

For most of the spring, there were seven catchers in camp, including Bill Haselman, Robert Machado, Raul Casanova and Carlos Mendez.

Now, the backup battle is down to Gil and Osik, who is considered the better defensive catcher. With so many catchers in camp and the Orioles trying to get Lopez acquainted with the pitchers, playing time has been scarce. Gil has six hits in 14 at-bats, and Osik is 1-for-18.

Osik, 35, signed a minor league contract after hitting .249 in 80 games last season with the Milwaukee Brewers. If the Orioles don't put him on their 25-man roster next week, he'll probably leave as a free agent.

Gil, 28, still has a minor league option remaining, so the Orioles could send him to Ottawa and start the season with Lopez and Osik.

Mazzilli said they are also considering keeping three catchers. That would allow them to pinch hit for the backup catcher on days when Lopez is the designated hitter and then send the third catcher in to play defense.

"Chief has not hurt himself at all this spring," Dempsey said. "He went on a campaign last year to improve himself blocking the balls and receiving the balls. And I think he's done an outstanding job. He really has."

Last season, the Orioles thought Gil's mind strayed too far from defense.

"Any manager will tell you that the most important part of a catcher's job is handling a pitching staff," Dempsey said. "The last thing you really worry about is how much he hits.

"But a lot of young guys make that same mistake. They come out and go into a slump [offensively], and all of a sudden, everything goes into a slump. That cannot happen when you're a catcher of a major league baseball team."

Gil was in tears the day the Orioles sent him to the minors last season. But Dempsey said he was impressed with how Gil responded at Ottawa.

He hit .351 for the Lynx and returned to the big league club in September.

"I think he learned a lesson," Dempsey said. "He came back to the big leagues with a different attitude about his own work ethic and what he's trying to accomplish, and I think we're seeing it this spring."

Mazzilli arrived at his first camp promising everyone a clean slate, and Gil is trying to take advantage.

"Last year is last year," Gil said. "I want to work on myself for this season."

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